Of child-rearing formulas and angry teens—and missed opportunities

My kids are angry. They have lots of things to be angry about—growing up in (religiously-induced) poverty, growing up with a lot of religious restrictions that even some other Muslim kids they knew didn’t have, their father’s actions (especially, his cheating, justified as polygamy), my actions (especially, my conservative Muslim idealism that flew in the face of reality), our inability to live the idealized (and for us, quite unrealistic) vision of the “ideal Islamic marriage/family,” our divorce, the bone-headed judgmentalness of those conservative Muslims who couldn’t keep their opinions about our divorce and how the kids were likely going to be affected by my working and dehijabbing and leaving my marriage to themselves….

Is there a way of talking about teenage rebellion without getting into a blame game?(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hookahin2010lounge.jpg)

Is there a way to get beyond simplistic, formulaic answers when talking about Muslim teenage rebellion?

Sometimes, they turn their anger inward, and become very moody. Sometimes, the younger kids express their anger by squabbling among themselves. Sometimes, by being rude to me. And sometimes, they rebel.

There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s teenage rebellion. Some of it is par for the course in the wider society—piercings, tattoos, skimpy or “gangster-ish” clothing—though not acceptable in the conservative community that they were raised in, where such signs of teenage rebellion are sources of stigma for parents (who clearly didn’t manage to “raise their kids properly”). But some types of rebellion can lead to trouble with the law.

The troubled offspring of marriages like mine have three main narratives available to them to make sense of their experiences: The first could be called the “Not without my daughter”-narrative (after the well-known book/movie). According to that narrative, the root of their problems is that their mother naively/foolishly married an immigrant Muslim man, which OF COURSE resulted in an awful marriage that turned into full-blown abuse because, well, doesn’t everybody know that This Is Just What Those Men Always Do? Because that is Just How They Are. So the kids end up being innocent victims, primarily of their “barbaric” fathers (who come from “barbaric” cultures), but to a lesser extent, of their naive/foolish mothers, who had the temerity to marry “outside their culture.”

The second could be called the “If only the mother had been pious”-narrative. According to that conservative Muslim narrative, the root of my kids’ problems is that their parents—but most especially, their mother—must not have been pious enough. Because whether a mother is pious or not will usually determine how pious the children will be. And because a woman who leaves a bad or even an abusive marriage and dares to become a single mother is just asking for delinquent kids. Because continuing to live with your children’s father, even if he treats you like a doormat and cheats on you “Islamically” keeps him in the kids’ lives, so that they will be properly disciplined. Even if he is seldom home—and when he is home, has no better way to deal with wayward kids than to threaten them or their property with serious bodily harm (in the case of the boys) or to accuse them of being whores and sluts (in the case of the girls).

It could perhaps be conceded that maybe in some extreme circumstances, a woman can leave a bad marriage, and still be regarded as pious. But in that case, she will remain part of her conservative community, and live according to their rules. She will keep her hijab on—even if this means that she can’t get a decent job. She will not ask too many questions, much less hold unorthodox opinions. And she will seek to enter another patriarchal marriage—or she will profess that she would love to do so, but that she cannot do so at the moment because all her time and energies are taken up with raising her children.

This “If only the mother had been pious” narrative falls particularly hard on western female converts. Because of course Those Western Women—even if they convert to Islam—just can’t seem to manage to be as pious and patient as born Muslim women. But any woman who not only leaves a marriage to a supposedly “righteous brother” (as in, a brother who prays and fasts and has a beard, even if he is an asshole) but also dehijabs and expresses unorthodox ideas will likely be punished by God for her hubris, by having unrighteous children.

There is a third narrative which one sometimes hears, again from conservative Muslims. This could be called the “Prophet Noah’s son”-narrative. It (sort of) reassures parents that the waywardness of their offspring might not be their fault. Because after all, even Prophet Noah, for all his righteousness, still had to contend with a disobedient son, who would not believe in his father’s message even when the evidence of its truth (in the form of a rapidly-rising flood) was all around him. So, the blame shifts from the pious parents to the wayward child, who refuses to heed his/her parents’ warnings. This child is either motivated by arrogance, or has been misled by satanic suggestion—there is no room here for teenage rebellion as a developmental stage, or for mental illness, or for any other explanation that might take away from the stark, black and white morality-play functions of this narrative.

None of these narratives are very helpful to my kids in making sense of their experiences. Or, in resolving their anger issues. But inadequate as they are, those are the narratives that are most easily available to them.

None of those narratives are about the interests of the kids per se—they are about passing judgment in order to prop up fragile identities: Of whiteness—if you marry “outside of your culture” your kids are doomed. Of conservative Muslimness—if you don’t stay within the bounds of what your conservative Muslim community regards as proper—than your kids won’t be righteous. Or even if you do stay within those bounds, you might still end up with an unrighteous kid, but that shouldn’t ever lead you to question the child-rearing messages you received from your conservative community.

As I stood outside the courtroom with an assorted group of people of various ages, ethnicities and religious affiliations, I looked at their facial expressions. The teenagers mostly had stoic or studiedly indifferent expressions, though a couple were smirking. The expressions on the faces of the parents ranged from a resigned “let’s just get this over with” look to  a “why doesn’t the ground just open and swallow me up?” sort of look. The security guards were grim-faced. Only the lawyers seemed somewhat happy to be there, as they bustled about with their heavy brief-cases.

I was rather surprised to see several women in hijab. Just like the welfare office, I recalled. There’d never been a shortage of hijabi women there. I was almost tempted to give salaams, but remembered in time that I was not only white, but bare-headed. They’d probably wonder why I was giving them salaams, and think that I was trying to be all multiculturally sensitive in that annoying way that some liberal white folks can be.

Courtrooms have never been places that I have wanted to be. I have always sought to avoid them whenever possible. In my conservative Muslim community, avoiding the secular law was usually seen as preferable in most cases—not only was it ungodly, as it was “man’s law” as opposed to “God’s law”, but given all the semi-legal or illegal stuff that was going on, the last thing anyone wanted was scrutiny from the police, social workers, or the courts. That profound unease with the long arm of the law is hard to shake.

A sullen-faced teen faced the judge first, while his sad-faced mother watched. She’s about my age, I thought, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye, while trying not to be obvious about it. From the sounds of it, she is another single mother like me, having trouble steering her kid in the right direction. How many of us are there?

The courtroom doors creaked open, and in walked two Muslim parents, with an expressionless teen. The man had that FOB-y look of a fairly conservative brother, though not the sort who would appear in public in a thobe or kufi. The woman was wearing a black jilbab and a dull-colored hijab. Both were looking as if they would rather be anywhere but there. I averted my eyes, not wanting to embarrass them further. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would still be sitting here in this courtroom if I had remained married and hijabed. Would I be sitting here, burning with embarrassment about having not only “failed” as a parent, but “making Islam look bad” by having to appear in court in my hijab, with my bearded, pious-looking husband? Looking like a stereotype?

But uneasy as the whole court ritual was making me, and sad as I felt for all the parents, I was gradually being drawn in, despite myself. I watched and listened as the lawyers presented, and I was fascinated. And I realized—hey, I could do this. Yes, I could totally do this. I could have been a lawyer, and I would have been good at it, too.

But now is too late. Way too late.

And then, I was surprised at myself. Because while I encounter many people working at various occupations practically every day—from window-washers to businesspeople to doctors—I almost never look at them and think that I would have been good at doing that. More often than not, I think to myself that “I could never do that” or “wow, they are good at that, but I don’t think that I would be.”

What a strange realization. But it was true, I realized. If I had been a lawyer, I would have been good at it. And my parents would have been proud of me. I’d have been following something of a family tradition, but breaking it too—there had been lawyers on both my mother’s and my father’s side, but none of them had been female.

But I had squandered that potential. And they had had to watch me do that.

How very, very hard it must have been for them to watch that.

If I had been going to be a lawyer (I thought), when would I have had to make the decision? I certainly wouldn’t have been one of those kids who knows that they want to go to law school when they are still in high school. In high school, I had had no clue what I wanted to do, other than to get out, and never ever have to see 99.9 % of those people again.

But, I might have decided on law school when I was an undergrad, and my father probably would have been willing to help me figure out how I could manage to do that… except that when I was an undergrad, law school was absolutely the farthest thing from my mind. By then, I was married already, and feeling under pressure from the conservative Muslim community: Why hadn’t I had any children yet? Why was I doing a BA—what good would that do? And didn’t I know that a good Muslim woman shouldn’t aspire to work outside the home??

I capitulated, and become a stay-at-home mother, whose entire life revolved around Raising My Children to be Good Muslims, and Being the Very Best Wife-and-Mother That I Could Be. There was no room for me to have even thought about law school. Not only would that not have been financially conceivable to me (we were poor, after all), but the responsibility for Raising Good Muslim Children rested almost completely on my shoulders. And it meant staying home with them, and sheltering them from the kafir society as much as possible. My ex wouldn’t have supported me going to law school either—too much trouble and inconvenience for him.

And even if it hadn’t been for that—how could I have even thought that studying and practicing the law of the kuffar was an acceptable ambition? Especially for a woman—who after all supposedly never need worry about how she  will support herself, and therefore should not even think of compromising her modesty by pursuing a career that routinely involves working alongside men??

I shook my head. It all seemed so insane now, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. How I had allowed myself to be drawn into a way of life that shut off so many avenues of growth and opportunity at every turn, while convincing us that it was morally superior to any other….

I dimly sensed that it some ways, it must be the same for rebellious teenagers, who do not, cannot see the likely long-term consequences of their actions. And that even when they end up in a court-room, there are so many ways that they can avoid seeing where they are headed if they do not make different choices.

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  1. #1 by (; _ ;) on December 12, 2012 - 3:05 am

    I’ve written several responses to this post but deleted them all. It’s all so very sad. I hope things went for the best in the courtroom.

  2. #2 by Heather Rawlings on December 12, 2012 - 3:09 am

    Wow you always hit home with me, but the part about the lawyer. Me too, me too. It had been a dream of mine, but I married at 22 and due to swallowing the religious line of patriarchy hook line and sinker I first found myself: 1. giving moral and financial support to my husband, after all he was going to be a doctor and the male bread winner. My needs came second. 2. Then children and SAHM ville. Alas. perhaps it’s too late for me too, but at least I have my sanity…

  3. #3 by xcwn on December 12, 2012 - 4:55 am

    (;_;) — Thank you. For everything.

    Heather Rawlings—Oh my. Yes, I remember that whole sacrifice-everything-for-the-REAL-breadwinner thing. I did that, never thinking that a day would come when I would need to be make a decent living for the sake of my kids.

    Maybe it’s not too late for you. Much depends on how many kids you have, what financial resources you have access to, what sort of supports you have. As they say, if you shoot for the stars, at least you may land on the moon. 🙂

  4. #4 by JDay on December 13, 2012 - 4:43 pm

    As uncomfortable as a court proceeding may be, it is still better than a teen funeral. With multiple coffins. It won’t haunt you the same way.

    Sometimes all you can do is pray they make it through the teen years/young adulthood because despite what we would like to believe, it is not in our hands.

    Also, when there is a little voice telling you that you can’t do something, I think you need to examine very carefully where that voice is coming from. You don’t know what you are capable of, at any age.

  5. #5 by ki sarita on December 21, 2012 - 2:18 pm

    amen. I’m approaching 40 and wondering if I could do law school myself. but i’m pregnant and I’ll have an infant to care for. Still, I’d like to get my master’s in something, perhaps family therapy would be doable….
    I wish you all the best with your teens. Def not easy. But time is on your side- they will grow up….

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